Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Obama's Misleadership

Everyone agrees that President Obama delivered a great speech at Fort Hood yesterday. Obama's oratorical skills were on full display in a ceremony commemorating the victims of Major Nidal Hasan.

After all, that was why Obama was elected. To say that he does not possess a special oratorical talent would be the worst kind of caviling.

Barack Obama found his moment and lived up to the playing the role of mourner-in-chief.

Mourner-in-chief is a ceremonial role whose proper domain is the sacred. Nearly all human societies call upon religious leaders to bury the dead, to ritualize grief and to facilitate the voyage to the other side. Dealing with the dead has never been the province of those whose profession involves civil or secular authority.

Obama excels when called upon to give great speeches, to engage in rhetorical uplift, to inspire his audience to new levels of religious emotion. It is not the least irony that the atheists among us are thrilled to experience this quasi-religious ecstatic experience. They are more than willing to ignore the fact that Obama mines rhetorical flourishes that would be most at home in a church.

But how many people were similarly attentive to the other ceremony was taking place on the same day on the other side of the Atlantic? And how many understood that the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall called for presidential presence.

Among those who did, I would count the bloggers at Commentary Magazine's "Contentions" site, Ann Althouse, Neo-neocon, and Camille Paglia.

As Paglia wrote yesterday: "There was the bizarre disproportion of Obama's flying to Denmark to flog a Chicago Olympics yet not having time to make it to Germany to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall-- which suggests a frivolous provincialism as well as ignorance of history among the president's principal advisors."

Of course, it is not just the president's advisors who stumbled here.

As you know, the leaders of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Russia convened in Berlin for this solemn occasion. The president of the United States, by design and intention, chose, long before the massacre at Fort Hood, to skip it.

Last week I wrote a post about executive presence. Link here. Most often we think of presence as a function of charisma, of an ineffable spirit that inhabits the great leader, and that inspires others to follow his lead automatically.

But presence can also be taken in the literal sense of being there. As Woody Allen famously put it: 80% of success is showing up.

This leads us to the question of ceremonial political leadership. We know that it is not the same as ceremonial religious leadership. We all know intuitively that there is a substantial difference between the Queen of England and Pope Benedict XVI.

No leader is more purely ceremonial than the Queen of England. A perfect figurehead, her role is largely limited to showing up at public ceremonies. Basically, she waves and christens.

At the opening of Parliament Queen reads verbatim a speech that has been entirely crafted by her prime minister. If she has political opinions or policy proposals she does not admit to them in public.

For a political leader, being present at a ceremony does not involve grand rhetorical gestures. It is not an occasion to sermonize, to shine, or even to teach.

Whatever virtue lies in speculating about Obama's reason for skipping out on the Berlin commemoration, the fact remains that the gesture is meaningful. By being absent Obama expressed disdain and contempt for the allies who joined us in fighting the Cold War.

Yet again, he asserted his specialness, by distancing himself, yet again, from his predecessors, both Republican and Democrat, in the White House. Obama does not act like someone who wishes to take his place in the great tradition of the American presidency. He presents himself as unique, not beholden to the past, sui generis, as though there is nothing more important than he.

And this makes him singularly inapt to exercise ceremonial political leadership. Being present, showing up, require a level of nearly superhuman self-effacement. Again, think of the Queen of England calmly reading the political agenda of Labor and Tory prime ministers with exactly the same bland, almost lifeless, expression.

Why separate the role of Queen from that of prime minister? And why do other countries, like Israel and Germany, make the role of president purely ceremonial while they charge the prime minister with governing?

The answer is easy to understand. When the head of state has no authority to govern, he or she symbolizes the unity of the state. E pluribis, unum, from many, one, as our currency declares.

While politics involves conflict and cooperation between competing parties and factions, the head of state rises about it and affirms that members of all parties and factions belong to one nation, indivisible. If you extend the metaphor, the head of state is the head that unites the body politic.

Of course, the paradox of the American system of government is that the American presidency is both ceremonial and political. All American presidents have struggled to find a balance between the two; pursuing a political agenda without compromising one's role as head of state.

And all recent presidents have to run on a platform of bringing us together, of uniting the nation. Surely, people voted for Barack Obama because he seemed to best embody the politician who could unite the nation, who could help it to overcome internecine conflict.

Until now the promise has remained unfulfilled. Considering Obama's failure to show up in Berlin, this does not seem like an accident.
Obama may have run as a uniter, but he has effectively continued to divide the nation, even as he separates the nation from its most loyal European allies.

By boycotting the Berlin ceremony he was saying that the Cold War, an enterprise that engaged the efforts of 9 American presidents over more than four decades, was not an American enterprise, but was a Republican enterprise, enabled by certain Democratic presidents.

After all, if Obama had gone to Berlin he would have been walking in the footprints left by Ronald Reagan. And, for Obama, Reagan was not his predecessor, but was a political opponent whose glory can only detract from his own.

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